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Body image and the ballet aesthetic


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#16 BryMar1995

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Posted 14 April 2001 - 11:51 PM

Hello everyone. I always had the feeling that physical proportions in regard to legibility and clarity of line were determining factors in aesthetic for the ballet performer. There is also the fact that the daily training dancers do keeps them toned to a state of high muscular definition in order to accomplish the athletic and expressive demands of their craft. Ballet dancers are often criticized for being too lean when they are in fact finely tuned athletes with specific physical proportions that indicate length and give exquisite physical control. The function of their craft determines the form of their tool, that is, their body. How people turned this into a need to stay thin rather than a need to stay physically peaked is perhaps something to talk about in another discussion.

When I attended Graduate School in a modern dance department I immediately got the notion that there was an anti-ballet bias that was cultivated and taught to not only the dance students, but also to any university student taking Intro to Dance or Dance Appreciation as a Fine Arts requirement. It was so confounding to hear about tolerance and diversity on the one hand, and then hear cultural vitriol linking ballet to subjugation of women on the other hand. My notion is that the advocates for modern dance were still, after decades of artistic accomplishment, looking for artistic justification and acceptance by cultivating a moral ascendancy over ballet. This concept found convenient support in some feminist theory. The unhappy trend is that higher education is often teaching our best and brightest that ballet is guilty of a broad spectrum of politically incorrect acts that are especially harmful to young women. Whenever I questioned this or pointed out what I found to be factually incorrect in my experience, or if I noted inconsistent or sloppy logic in the arguments concerning ballet, I would be met with resistance, dismissal, and pointed hostility. Questioning the political line was not tolerated. So much for freedom of thought!

Despite what ballet seems to require in physical proportion and expressive athleticism, I agree with Samba that the art, while seated in the body, ultimately transcends the body. I think this is true in modern dance as well. Otherwise our art is merely surface, what we see on the outside, rather a means to reveal the innermost condition of the human spirit.
Rick McCullough

#17 Nanatchka

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Posted 15 April 2001 - 10:10 AM

[QUOTE]Originally posted by Allegro:
[QB]Although I think those super ballet thin bodies are very unattractive, and I think that anorexia is way to common in a young dancer's ballet

Anorexia is way too common among young women, generally. Perhaps someone with a tendency towards anorexia is drawn to a world where the body is the focus. But as Mary sweetly called it, "heroine chic"---aka heroin chic--is just as responsible, if not more by far, for the skinny aesthetic. Furthermore, advertising and fashion photography offer "faux" bodies as a norm--altered by plastic surgery (slim as a reed and bosomy) and photo editing. Also: remember, before all those implants and air brushings, in Mr. B's heyday, there was Twiggy. About Mark Morris--his Dido (he used to portray the Queen of Carthage in his "Dido and Aeneas") was one hefty gal. And gorgeous, too. But not a ballerina. null

#18 leibling

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Posted 15 April 2001 - 11:19 AM

I agree completely with BryMar1995's comments- an interesting observation about the roots of the bad name ballet sometimes seems to have !!

#19 Alexandra

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Posted 15 April 2001 - 11:43 AM

Well put, Rick and Nanatchka. Rick, I've observed the same bias against ballet at universities. I've been in classes where we were taught that ballet is not creative; only modern dance is. (This is an article of faith.) Certainly the notion ballet is inherently vicious to women is a popular belief--I remember in a dance history class writing that pointework was the great equalizer in the 1830s, I was nearly stoned (as in they threw metaphoric stones).

When I started teaching, I learned the most amazing things from my dance philosophy students -- again, ballet is not creative. Ballet choreographers just pick steps from a book. However, modern dancers CREATE movements. John Martin, of course, wrote the famous "Isadora Duncan was the first expressive dancer." This has led to a belief that (classical) ballet is not expressive, it is merely an academic exercise.

I think Rick has hit on some of the reasons for this, and I'd add that dance departments are, for the most part, run by modern dancers. Dance history is taught by modern dancers (1st semester, beginning of time to the Ballet Russe; second semester, total omission of ballet and concentration on "real dance.") These are people with MFAs, without any formal coursework in dance history beyond the course they took where they learned the same things. Couple this with the assumption that modernism is not just the current trend in art, or current manifestation of artistic expression, but that it is the ONLY way one can look at art, and anything that came before it is of historical interest only, and this is another aspect of the "why isn't ballet more popular?" question. Students are taught to scorn ballet. The "Agon" wing of the Balanchine museum is alone permissible -- I know several ballet fans who snuck into the art generally through this door.

#20 Mel Johnson

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Posted 15 April 2001 - 12:38 PM

What's being described here is what I call "cultural Israelism". The thinking runs like this: Since (x form) has betrayed and corrupted True Art, only (my form) is worthy of being called The Truth, and its followers the Chosen People.

It is indeed ludicrous to have an intellectual community which still subscribes to such a barely-amended Mid-Victorian ideology! :P

[ 04-15-2001: Message edited by: Mel Johnson ]

#21 BalletNut

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Posted 15 April 2001 - 09:43 PM

About the anti-ballet bias in academia--I think it would be very insulting to modern dancers and choreographers for P.C. apologists to imply that their dance form does not require the same level of talent from its dancers that ballet does. Neither
does this make sense: if modern dance is really "improvised creative movement" then what need do we have for people like Mark Morris, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, or Martha Graham?

Aside from which, it seems as though way too many "educated" people confuse modern dance with performance art. :eek:

[ 04-15-2001: Message edited by: BalletNut ]

#22 dirac

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Posted 16 April 2001 - 12:26 PM

It's an old saw that standards of beauty, especially for women, are culturally driven. It is probably true that Thin (or let's say Lean, if that's less pejorative) is Better for things like clarity of line, and so forth. I certainly prefer it. However, I don't feel quite confident enough to assert -- we are all creatures of our time, after all, and influenced by cultural assumptions in many ways of which we are only partially aware -- that this is some kind of eternal, inviolable standard. Around the turn of the century, women were a lot curvier; and they were not supposed to be too thin or too tall. (Pavlova was accused of excessive thinness in her time. I don't think she looks too thin today. To take another example from an earlier generation, Sarah Bernhardt, who also doesn't seem especially scrawny to the modern eye, was constantly lampooned by cartoonists for the same reason.) I should imagine that the dancers of that time, who seem so chunky to us today, looked like the epitome of lissome grace back then. A lot depends on what the eye is accustomed to seeing.

#23 Alexandra

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Posted 16 April 2001 - 12:35 PM

There's a wonderful turn-of-the-last-century Danish review complaining (gently, gentlemanly) about Adeline Genee, a Danish dancer who made her career abroad, but came home to dance. Well, she's a nice dancer all right, but isn't she awfully thin? Not like our "charming, chubby ladies of the ballet."

#24 Dance Fan

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Posted 18 April 2001 - 02:11 AM

The term "anorexic" is used much too freely these days. Anorexia nervosa is an exceedingly rare psychiatric condition whose victims have such a distorted body image that they see themselves as intolerably fat when they are actually skeletal. There is some evidence that an anomaly in the brain predisposes one to the problem. But just being thin or wanting to be thin does not make one "anorexic".

Does anyone recall that around the time that Heidi Guenther passed away, three young men died trying to make the weight for their division on wrestling teams? There was very little coverage. Their deaths were reported as accidents, the result of risks taken to achieve a desired goal. Perhaps because they were males, no one suggested that they were anorexic.

People Magazine recently ran cover stories on female actors who were intolerably thin, and then on women in film and television with "healthy" bodies. There was maybe an eight to ten pound difference between them, tops! This society tends to use issues of weight to undermine the confidence of women, whether they are fat, skinny, or in-between. There is no reason for any woman's weight to be a matter for public discussion. The critics who berate ballet dancers for being too thin are often the same ones who write viciously if a dancer puts on a few pounds.

And speaking of critics, surely it is unethical to critique an art form if you don't have a great love for it at its best. I loathe the sound of boy sopranos, and would never attempt to assess a performance by the Vienna Boys Choir. Obviously Lewis Segal hates ballet, so why is he covering it for the LA Times?

#25 Alexandra

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Posted 18 April 2001 - 09:33 AM

I have to say in defense of Lewis Segal, whom I know, he does not, by any means, hate ballet. I don't agree with his article, but it's not driven by hatred.


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